Leadership Lessons from a Top Gun Pilot/Instructor Part 1

Hello all, welcome to the latest edition of THE INTERVUE! On today’s edition, we are about to get some leadership lessons from a man who has had an extraordinary career, on the ground and in the air!

With our next guest, I want to ride the mighty wings across the sky with. During his twenty-year career in the U.S. Navy, he served as an FA-18 Super Hornet pilot, a Top Gun instructor and a Commanding Officer including a combat tour in Iraq & two tours of duty in Japan. He also served as a speechwriter to the Chief of Naval Operations as well at the director of Communications

He wrote Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary of General Mattis which was published in October 2019 and now he reveals the lessons he learned at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) for the first time in his new book, TOPGUN’s Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit, coming out this Tuesday, September 15th.

Let’s stand and salute to CMDR Guy M. Snodgrass, USN (Ret.)

Commander, it’s nice to have you here on The Intervue!

Thank you for having me.

Once I picked up your book, I knew that I was going to learn a lot of lessons that I am going to take with me for life. I could not put it down. It’s been less than a year since your last book Holding the Line was published to rave reviews. When did you realize that you wanted to write a book about leadership?

Probably around 2014 or 2015. This book has been six or seven years in the making overall. I look back on my childhood. I look back on my college or when I was starting off in my career as US Navy fighter pilot. The biggest game changing benefit that I felt like what I got was not just friends or the mentors who were very generous of giving me their time but it was the books right. It was the ability to go to a library or get online and find a book for basically anything you wanted to learn and that was such a big help in my career.

So I found myself as I was getting ready to become a commanding officer, I gave a lot of thought of leadership and what it means to me. I knew at some point that I wanted to take those lessons that I created six years ago and turn them into a book that I can share with men and women across America

Absolutely, one of the things that I like about your book is that every chapter has a deep lesson to follow from your experience. How did you determine what were the important lessons that needed to be told? 

You know this is an interesting one because the lessons are very similar to what I have created in 2014. I have sat down and put pen to paper and I was getting ready to go to Japan for the second time. I was going to be a fighter pilot out there but I was also going to be a leader for a squadron. I was going to have two hundred twenty men and women who I worked with, who are going to be looking to me for leadership and guidance. What do I want them to know?  

At that point, I simply created a list of ten of what I was calling them, axioms, ten lessons for what I thought were incredibly important but there was something behind them. So, I took this information for this book. The book was heavily based on what I have thought then and what I did was paired it to these lessons and an anecdote. Something that had happened in an aircraft or you know as I was dogfighting or going through Top Gun and becoming on instructor. Where did I learn these lessons from? That’s where the genesis came from.

That’s excellent. I would like to talk about some of those lessons with you for I felt they were noteworthy. The first chapter impressed as it states “Focus on talent, passion and personality.” I cannot tell you how many times that I always tell my team members if you focus on these key things that you will go far in life. I am glad that you put this as your first chapter. One of the quotes that caught my eye was “Remember, none of us wins 100% of the time. Your credibility is far more important.” I would like you to emphasize that lesson in the book.

You’re right, I mean so many times in life we can get really distracted by things that we think will make us successful. It’s your talent, it’s not “Are you the very, very best in what you do?” but are you credible. Are you someone who when you speak that you can speak with authority?

Passion, are you truly passionate about it just like you and The Rogers Revue. You been doing this for eleven years. You put your heart and soul to it. Obviously, the passion is there. So that applies for Top Gun instructors as much as it would apply to a Starbucks barista or anybody. Im sure you have to be passionate to get to the top level of performance.

And the last one, personality, that was so incredibility important to TopGun because we realize that you can have talent, you can have passion, but if you’re a jerk the no one’s going to learn from you. So you have to be relatable. You have to be someone that people want to work with. That’s why those three things are critically important not only for Top Gun instructors but for any walk of life.  I think that just the truth as even before because people want to work with people that they like. They want to work with people whom they find credible and respectful.

Amen to that, another quote that caught my attention is “Make talent, passion and your personality your calling card.” What I gather from that is when you make those three things your calling care, you created that great impression. It could be the first thing that people see about you. One of the things that I always learn from doing customer service to being the leader of TRR is that when you leave that happy lasting impression when you first and last meet people, they know that they can trust you. They can work with you.

That’s right and that’s where you are developing right is you’re developing that rapport. You’re developing that trust. Its back to that whole issue of credibility. If you have talent, passion and personality, if it comes through cleanly then people would say and I like to use you as an example “Wow, Dean, He’s got the talent, the passion and the personality. He’s very credible at what he does. So when I need that kind of assistance and when I want to work with someone, I pick up the phone and the first person that I call is Dean” because they know that you are very good at what you do can you can get it done. So, that’s why you want to make it your calling card because that’s the kind of reputation you delve and that reputation will carry you forward for a long period of time.

Speaking from my personal experience, going through NJROTC and leading various teams, I observe some people are natural leaders and others can be leaders in time. Why do you feel that leadership can be a difficult trait for some people?

I think it’s based on your life experiences. I, for example, would say that I was not a natural born leader. I was very shy when I was growing up. I was very shy during middle school and into high school. I remember coming back to the Naval Academy that I was really coming out of my shell. I was really feeling comfortable. I was being exposed to a really amazing opportunities like jumping out airplanes with a parachute, flying gliders, going to sea. I was such a big change from where I was growing up in Dallas/Fort Worth Texas. I remember when I was coming home and met a few of my teachers that I visited at the high school to say “Hello!” and I also saw some friends and almost unanimously they thought that “You are a completely different person. Where did you come from?” I feel that sometimes people find it earlier in their lives and they are very comfortable in themselves. They are very comfortable in their confidence level. Then there are others like me who watch a lot of really good leaders. They are always taking lessons ad thinking about how they would do it but they are yet quite ready. As you reach that point in your life where you are really ready to step up and turn it up a notch that you have all the background to be success you need just that commitment and willingness to say that “You know, I am going to do it and no one is going to stop me.”

Stay tuned for Part II of this amazing interview with Cmdr. Snodgrass – tomorrow September 15th when TOPGUN’s Top 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit is released wherever books are sold! Until then, see you… out there!

Part II shows that writing essay online is easier than 2 years before